Archive for February, 2009

 They say that you know you are really accustomed to a foreign country when you start to dream in its language.

So what does it say when I start dreaming in messed-up mixtures of languages? Perhaps that I’m accustomed to INSEAD, where everyone speaks a little bit of everything? 

Last night, I dreamt that I was eating lunch with my new friends and we were speaking in languages that made no sense for us to be speaking in. The discussion, as I remember it, was about someone who was “padding” their resume by saying they were a professor.

My Colombian friend: ” Y, escribió que ‘soy profesor”

Me:  “Professeur??? Mais, elle n’est pas professeur!”

My American Friend: “Si, pero, si no hay ningún problema, eh! (Shrugging her shoulders).

Random other guy:  ” D’accord ”

Yes, this conversation was in French and Spanish, and I was somehow speaking both in my head. At the same time. While I slept.

I’ve had several other really odd language moments. Like last week, when I asked the guy at the fromagerie if the cheese he gave me was from a particular region of France. He answered me, but I realized later that I had asked him that question in Spanish, with a French accent. Ugh. Fortunately, it’s very similar in both languages.

Or how about this one: I tried to figure out how to make dinner reservations at 8 o’clock. Here was what I said:

” Je voudrais un reservation a las ot-heures. ”

Let me break that down for you:

1.  A Las. Is Spanish. In French, you skip the  ” las ”

2. Ot.  Contrary to what I thought,  this is NOT French. It’s  “8” in HINDI!

3.  Heures. Yes, I got this part right. Finally.

And then I wonder why no one can understand me…





Let me explain


Read Full Post »

Next stop - Cardinal Lemoine!

Next stop - Cardinal Lemoine!

Every metro system ,I think,  has at least one or two metro stations whose names really stick out and appeal to me.  

In Buenos Aires, I loved the Scalabrini Ortiz stop. I rarely, if ever, actually exited at this stop, but I rode past it to and from classes every day for a semester in college. I used to joke that, if I ever had a son, I would name him Scalabrini Ortiz. Or a dog, maybe.

In Chicago, I loved hearing the automated voice announce that we were nearing “Merchandise Mart.” It just seems like such as silly name for a stop downtown – like there’s K-Mart, Wal-Mart and then the cumbersome “Merchandise Mart.”

So last week, when I was in Paris, I took a ride on Line 10 (on the map, it’s the puke-colored line, although one friends insists the color is actually ‘mustard’).  I was delighted to find  my new favorite Metro stop — Cardinal Lemoine.

It works better if you put on a thick Midwestern-American accent and call it “Cardinal Lemon.”  The station itself didn’t look like anything special, but the name – oh, the name! I’ll never be able to forget this one. It sounds like the name of an indie rock band, or a coughdrop brand.

The possibililies are really endless.  Cardinal Lemon could even be a character in the French version of the board game Clue (It’s Cardinal Lemon! In the Drawing Room! With a stale baguette!).

I later found out that Cardinal Jean Lemoine (1250-1313) was a papal legate of Pope Boniface VIII to Philip IV the Fair. Kind of boring, right?

My second favorite stop is the really lame-sounding station “Maubert-Mutualité.” If Cardinal Lemon’s station was named by some hip artist, then this stop was definitely coined by some uptight businessman, maybe even that guy at INSEAD’s library who keeps shhh-ing me.

Maubert-Mutualité sounds like what resulted from a long-awaited, much-discussed and debated merger between two ailing French life insurance companies.

“Thanks to Maubert-Mutualité, I can be rest assured that, even if something happens to me, my wife and the petit garçon will live comfortably,” the handsome French man will say on the company’s television ad.

OK, so what’s your favorite metro stop?

Read Full Post »

On Thursday, two friends and I went to an English bookstore in Paris, the Village Voice, for a special event they hosted – a reading by one of my favorite authors, Jhumpa Lahiri.

The majority of  people I know are most familiar with her book, The Namesake, which was made into a movie a few years back – I loved that book. But I really love her short stories, too. To be honest, until fairly recently, I always claimed to “hate” short stories. I really did.  To me, short stories were like “The Most Dangerous Game,” that story many of us read in 9th grade Literature (you remember, the one that pointed out, so subtly, that HUMANS are the most “dangerous game” ?)

Too many short stories I had read seemed sort of pointless,  like they didn’t have enough time to really get me to care about the characters. But when I read Lahiri’s short stories, I felt completely differently. They  really drew me in.

I read her latest book of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, as we were preparing to move from Phoenix to France. Our apartment was almost empty, and I remember finishing the book as I read “in bed,” which was just a couple comforters on the floor, next to a broken lamp we were preparing to give away. The walls were completely bare and it was sort of a depressing environment to begin with.

As I finished the book (the third story about Hema and Kaushik) and came to the ending (Which I won’t give away) I started bawling. Really, really crying, which I NEVER do from reading books. I even came out to the living room to see D. and was just started sobbin, “D., Its. So. SAD!”

It never happens to me, but this time, it did.

So, long story short –  they’re really great short stories.

I also love Lahiri’s  use of little details to create these really vivid images that stick in my head long after I read the books. Everything from a recent immigrant taking cornflakes and putting chili flakes on them, to make “chaat”,  to another story where the woman uses keeps spare safety pins on her bangles – and then later nearly uses them to commit suicide, while wearing a bright lilac coat… These details stay with me long after I read the stories.

And, because of that, I think Larhiri is a brilliant  writer.

When we arrived at the bookstore,  I realized  there was another author who I  will admit to never hearing of -Mavis Gallant. She is a Canadian writer in her 80s, whose work has won many awards and who has also had many short stories appear in the New Yorker. She has lived in Paris for decades, and apparently frequently writes about expats, and people who are separated from where they belong – or who don’t really belong anywhere. In this way, she shares some similarities with Lahiri.

 Anyway, I felt very lucky to be just a few feet away from both these amazing authors – and who would have thought it would happen in France?

Read Full Post »

Les Liaisons

 A few French classes ago, my teacher showed me an article she read in the newspaper that morning. It was about “les liaisons.” For those of you not “in the know,”  the liaison is the little apostrophe that the French use to link two words with adjacent vowels. For example, because they do not want to put two vowels together, they would not say “Le enfant” (the child) but rather “L’enfant.”

This is, at least partially, what gives the French language its fluid, musical sound.

However, according to this article in “Le Parisien,”  all that is at risk of changing.

People are now getting lazy and forgetting their liaisons —  and the article says that the Euro is to blame. 

Before the Euro, there was the Franc. And you would say “Le Franc.” But NOW, people are saying “Le Euro,” a big no-no, apparently.

It’s supposed to be “L’euro.”

Here’s a bad translation of some of the article… thanks to Google Translate.

With the Euro, it loses liaisons
This is an unintended consequence of the single currency. The French almost always wrong in the connections when they say “six euros”, “twenty euros … In a book published yesterday, a former French teacher launches a stone into the pond.
With humor, he calls it “the europathie”, a “disease” was born on 1 January 2002 at the onset of the single currency, which is almost always err on the links or omit to say “six euro “,” twenty euros, “one hundred euros” or “four-twenty euros.

So,  Jean-Joseph Julaud, former French teacher, wrote “The Little Book of Liaisons”, a  serious book published yesterday. In this small book of liaisons, he offers “rehabilitative exercise.”

 Jean-Joseph Julaud, already author of the bestseller “French Literature for Dummies,” focuses on the correct pronunciation of words beginning with h aspirated and a silent h, but mainly on the numbers followed by the noun euro. All adjectives numbers from 1 to 1 000 are listed.

“Most of the French are suffering from chronic europathie the infectious agent was first located at the checkout of supermarkets. The epidemic now affects all segments of the population, even the most literate….Without liaisons, we lose what makes the musicality and fluidity of our language,” says the writer who compared “a bad liaison “to” a small coffee stain on a white shirt. “

And this was in a mainstream newspaper, not some linguistics journal! The article I saw even had a corresponding “charticle,” that told readers when they should use liaisons, as well as a “real people” article with headshots of men-on-the-street answering the question, “Do you always use liaisons?”

Its easy for me to laugh at this. Of course, I thought, only the French would care so much about some silly little grammatical rule. But then, when I thought about it more, I decided it’s good they care so much.

English is always changing, and that’s fine – but it also has the advantage of being one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. But think about about all the languages in the world that are in danger of dying. That’s the case for many indigenous languages, specifically, from the USA to South America and India. Some linguists estimate that nearly half of the world’s 6,900 languages are  in danger of dying out in one generation.

Now, I know French isn’t  at risk of dying out at at. But, still, when you start to think about language that way, as an everyday way of preserving culture and history, well, it makes sense why some people really take  le liaison very seriously.

And if other cultures had the same resources and ability to try to preserve their own languages in the same way, well, I think the whole world would be better off for it.

Read Full Post »

 Typically, D. takes me out to a nice dinner for Valentine’s Day. Nothing too expensive, but something cute and romantic – last year, for example, we spent the night at an Italian bistro – my meal was complete with the day’s special, heart-shaped squash ravioli and tiramisu for dessert.

 Naturally, this week, I’ve been scoping out restaurants where we can have a nice meal on the 14th.

I noticed most places have a special for “La Saint-Valentin,” but there are a few hitches: Mainly, that each special meal, even at the smallest places, costs roughly the equivalent of a down payment on a house and, secondly, the food being served is not exactly my cup of tea.

Let’s put it this way: To me, slimey snails and rabbit guts do not scream “love” or “romance.” They don’t even scream “Eat me.”

Every restaurant seems to offer a set menu, with dishes like rabbit pate, blood sausage and baby ducks cooked in the blood of their mothers, encrusted with almonds.

Call me pedestrian, but even if I were not a vegetarian, this type of cuisine would not appeal to me.

I believe you can categorize all “fine” French cooking (or at least that which is appearing on Valentine’s Day menus) into two groups: “Eww” and “Fluffy.” Both types, however, are always seasoned with garlic or onion, and nothing else.

Under the “Eww” category (not to be confused with “ewe,” which they also eat) is everything slimey or disgusting – things you wouldn’t want to find in your own home, much less consume. Examples include snails, frogs, and odds and ends of chickens and pigs (sausages made of pig intestines and blood) seasoned with garlic and onion.

The second category, “Fluffy,” includes anything cute and cuddly. If, as a child, you either owned it, slept with a stuffed animal of it, or fed it at a petting zoo, the French have decided to kill it, stuff it with other bits of dead animals, and serve it to you on a plate. Seasoned with garlic and onion.

The perfect example of this is lapin, or rabbit. Nothing prepared me for the horror of seeing skinned, raw, whole rabbits on display in cases at the farmer’s market. I remember, as a child, feeding carrots to the rabbits that lived under our deck during winter. I remember petting the cuddly bunnies at my neighbor’s house. They’re adorable, why would you eat them?

I’m not sure where D. and I will end up on Valentine’s Day, but let’s put it this way: This might be the last chance he ever has to order Chinese take-out for us on Feb. 14 and not end up in the doghouse for it. 

Read Full Post »

Elbows on the Table

 I know, I know, it’s *rude* to put your elbows on the table.

Or is it?

Like nearly everything, it seems, table manners differ from culture to culture. While, in India, it was completely acceptable for me to eat anything with my hands (in fact, many places you will not even get silverware, unless you
Last week's cheese, at my house

Last week's cheese, at my house

ask for it) here in France, I’ve noticed I get weird looks if I even eat my pizza with my fingers! They cut it pizza slices up  into tiny pieces with a fork and knife.

Apparently, also, in France, it’s considered impolite to keep a hand on your lap or at your side while at the table. Instead, you are suppose to keep both hands on the table.

This, of course, leads to me leaving my elbows on the table, too. And I’m not the only one.

At a recent “Wednesday night cocktail hour,” at a friend’s house, we had perhaps a few too many cocktails, and decided we should rename our group “Elbows on the Table.”

Why not? It’s catchy, and it reflects the conversation we were having about differing table manners among people of many cultures (we have a pretty good group, representing the US, India, Brazil, France, Egypt, and hopefully more to come).

Personally, I think “Elbows on the Table,” sounds like some sort of food-to-table cooperative formed in Berkeley in the 1970s. I can practically hear the voice of some woman, voice scratchy like a chain-smoker, explaining it  on NPR during one of those nighttime shows no one listens to. Or on a documentary watched by students in a classes called something like;  “Women’s Studies: Our bodies, our Communities,” at UW Madison.

“Then, it was decided, our little revolutionary group would meet at nights, and each night, we met at a different home, with people opening up their doors and sharing what little cheese and baguettes they had…” she would say. “We felt such a sense of excitement and solidarity in the air! We knew change was coming…”


Basically, we’ve decided to use our group to explore the cheeses of France. So, each week, the meeting rotates, and everyone brings a bottle of cheap wine and a nice cheese from the local market or fromagerie. We’ve sampled some really good ones so far -although we realized too late that the sellers don’t mark the cheese when they pack it up, so unfortunately, we had no idea which cheese we were eating.

Elbows, last week

Elbows, last week

 Still, it was fun. We had lots of cheese, fig spread, olives, etc. and I made a palmito “hummus” and a red-pepper walnut dip.

We’ll try harder next week. I’m hoping to purchase a yummy Époisses at the Fontainebleau market, to see if my new friends like this particularly stinky cheese as much as I do.

To Elbows on the Table! Cheers! Si, se Puede!

Read Full Post »

American Third Floor

No, it’s not the name of a cool band you don’t know about.

A sign in INSEAD's cafeteria on Inauguration Day - for the Americans!

A sign in INSEAD's cafeteria on Inauguration Day - for the Americans!

 It’s what one of my new friends here and I have taken to calling the library’s third floor.

Much like miles and pounds, Americans seem to measure the levels of buildings very differently from everyone else in the world.

Americans assume that, after walking up one flight of stairs, we are on the second floor. But the rest of the world is convinced that is, indeed, the first floor. And so on.

Academically, I knew this. We learned it in Spanish class back in high school, and I noticed it while I lived in South America. But I’d forgotten.

Lately, I seemed to be having trouble finding people at the INSEAD library. A Colombian friend told me, last week, that she had been on the second floor of the library all afternoon – where I thought I had been. And yet we hadn’t seen each other… Hmmm… odd.

Then, earlier this week, I told a Malaysian friend that I would meet her on the second floor of the library to study French. But after about 15 minutes, I couldn’t figure out where she was. I called her.

“Where are you?” I whispered into the phone.

“I’m on the second floor. But I can’t find you,” she answered. “Where are you?”

“Right here,” I hissed into the phone, ignoring a dirty look from a guy studying economics in front of me.

“Oh… are you on AMERICAN second floor?” she asked me.


American second floor it was. She quickly found me, but for the rest of the week, we have been very clear with one another. “I’ll be on ‘American’ third floor,” she’ll tell me, and we laugh.

At least we cleared that one up. And at least the conversion to “Other World” floors is quite easy, because I just have to add one more floor.

Now, if only the conversion from Fahrenheit to celsius were so easy!


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »